21 now sick; Campylobacter outbreak traced to Alaskan raw milk

The state health department has traced the source of the campylobacter outbreak that has infected now more than 21 people back to Peninsula Dairy, a dairy farm in Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula; two people have been hospitalized.

The farm operates a cow-share program. The milk is distributed to shareholders throughout the Kenai Peninsula, in Anchorage, and in Sitka. There is at least one colbert.raw.milksecondary case of an infant who became ill after having close contact with a laboratory-confirmed case.

The Peninsula Clarion reports tate veterinarian Bob Gerlach and Donna Fearey, a nurse epidemiologist for the state, on Tuesday inspected Peninsula Dairy, owned by Kevin Byers. Gerlach said they saw no problems with Byers’ operation.

“In comparison to most dairies, he’s doing a very pretty good job,” Gerlach said.

He said Byers had modern and clean equipment and his cows were healthy and well-fed.

In a 2011 outbreak, 18 people were stricken with Campylobacter that was eventually traced back to a farm owned by Byers’ brother in the Matanuska Valley.

The campylobacter infection was of a different strain, however, and Gerlach said connecting the two outbreaks would be inappropriate.

The department cannot close Byers’ farm as cow-share programs are legal, McLaughlin said. The direct sale of raw milk is, however, illegal, he said.

Ignoring the alarm

Matthew Wald writes in the NY Times this morning that “when an oil worker told investigators on July 23 that an alarm to warn of explosive gas on the Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico had been intentionally disabled months before, it struck many people as reckless.

“Reckless, maybe, but not unusual. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a crash last year on the Washington subway system that killed nine people had happened partly because train dispatchers had been ignoring 9,000 alarms per week. Air traffic controllers, nuclear plant operators, nurses in intensive-care units and others do the same.”

These are problems of human behavior and design in complex systems — like in a meat processing plant that collects lots of listeria samples but doesn’t act when an increase seems apparent.

If consumers and retailers have food safety recall fatigue, do producers and processors have alarm fatigue – learning to ignore rather than investigate data that may highlight a problem?

In the Maple Leaf 2008 listeria outbreak that killed 22 Canadians, an investigative review found a number of environmental samples detected listeria in the culprit plant months before the public was alerted to possible contamination and that the company failed to recognize and identify the underlying cause of a sporadic yet persistent pattern of environmental test results that were positive for Listeria spp.

Alarms and monitoring systems are established to alert humans – with all their failings – that something requires attention.

Mark R. Rosekind, a psychologist who is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Times,

“The volume of alarms desensitizes people. They learn to ignore them.”

Wald further writes,

“On the oil rig and in the Guam control tower, the operators were annoyed by false alarms, which sometimes went off in the middle of the night. At the refinery and the reactor, the operators simply did not believe that the alarms would tell them anything very important.

Wald says, “… the alarms conveyed no more urgency to these operators than the drone of a nagging spouse — or maybe the shepherd boy in Aesop’s fable, who cried “Wolf!”

So what to do? The warning systems need to be better designed delivered and continually debated throughout any organization that values a safety culture. Engineers have known this for decades when designing fail-safe systems (sic). The food sector has a lot to learn.
 

Oysters -steamed – may have caused illness at Raleigh oyster bar

NBC17 is reporting this afternoon that several customers have notified the 42nd Street Oyster Bar that they became ill after eating oysters at the longtime Raleigh restaurant.

Brad Hurley, a partner with 42nd Street Oyster Bar, told NBC17 that the restaurant received calls on Monday and Tuesday from customers who reported becoming sick over the weekend.

Hurley said the restaurant has pulled steamed oysters from their menus. The restaurant does have a separate batch of oysters from the North Carolina coast that is not suspected to cause illness that are still on the menu.

So far it has not been determined what is causing the reported illnesses. The restaurant is going through all equipment and working with the Wake County Health Department to determine the cause of the illnesses.
 

Army colonel tries old C-ration pound cake, doesn’t get botulism

Field rations for soldiers are designed with two primary motives: 1) providing lots of calories and 2) lasting in a combat zone.

For the most part, taste is greatly sacrificed. But retired Army colonel Henry A. Moak, Jr., thought his 40-year-old C-ration can of pound cake was "good."

Moak got the drab olive can as a Marine helicopter pilot off the Vietnamese coast in 1973. He vowed to hang on to it until the day he retired, storing it in a box with other mementos.

"It’s even a little moist," he said, wiping his mouth after downing a handful in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes following a formal retirement ceremony.

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, who was the U.S. Army Europe commander when Moak served overseas, took an even bigger piece. "Tastes just like it always did," Mikolashek mumbled with a mouthful of cake as Moak laughed and clapped.

The AP reports,

"Moak said he wasn’t worried about getting sick from any bacteria that may have gotten into the old can, because it looked sealed. But the military discourages eating from old rations.

"’Given the risks … we do everything possible to ensure that overly aged rations are not consumed,’ said Lawrence Levine, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.

"Levine named the threats as mold and deadly botulism if the sealing on the food has been broken, which isn’t always visible."

Mold, maybe. Botulism, no; it arises from improper canning initially – or denting later – but not broken seals. (They only open the possibility of contamination to microbes that like air: B. cereus, Lavine…)

Eating beach sand can be messy – at both ends

When it gets hot in Kansas, we go to Florida.

We’re leaving in a week, with a little work along the way before we settle into our rental on sexy Venice Beach, Florida. It’s the antithesis of places like South Beach, Miami, where celebrities flock and appearances rule. Venice – founded as a retirement community by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in the 1920s – is about as quiet as it gets.

With good beaches.

This year we’ll have 7-month-old Sorenne, and she’s starting to crawl (see below). If she can do this on hardwood, sand will be a breeze.

So we have to aware of sand in the mouth.

Besides the yuck factor, researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that digging in sand on beaches near water with high levels of fecal bacteria could be a risk factor for developing the drips.

For the study, reported in The American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers got contact information for more than 25,000 people visiting seven beaches within seven miles of sewage treatment plants.

About 10 days later, the researchers called and asked how they had spent their day at the beach and whether they had experienced problems like vomiting or diarrhea since then.

Those who dug in the sand, the study found, were significantly more likely to report having been sick — with those who had allowed themselves to be buried in the sand most affected. Children seemed to be at extra risk.

The best advice: wash your damn hands, especially before eating.

This isn’t the first time sand has been implicated in human illness.

In May, 2008, children’s playgrounds on Sydney’s northern beaches were closed after a rare form of salmonella normally linked to tropical fish made dozens of toddlers seriously ill.
 

Color-changing bar codes could indicate safety

I knew Mom wanted us to have dinner with the family, so when my stomach started growling on the four-hour drive to her house I dutifully chose a strawberry milk at the truck stop over the fried chicken I knew was at the counter.

My husband and I both got a bottle of pink moo juice (which is markedly different from yellow cow water) and one was past its “Use by” date.

When I walked back in to tell the cashier, she simply said, “Ew,” and held out her hand for the offending product while I went to get a new one.

I knew the date on the bottle told me when my drink would taste the best; it didn’t really say much about whether it was safe.

Safety is a result of a product’s history.

Brett Lucht and William Euler — chemistry professors at the University of Rhode Island – came up with a nearly invisible dye that will turn red when a package of food gets above 40 F.

That could tell me whether a bottle of milk was likely to be safe before I bought it.

The professors also have a patent for a two-bar code system that uses one made with color-changing dye to mask the one that’s typically scanned at the checkout when the product has warmed up too much.

Sounds pretty cool. I wonder which manufacturers would be willing to use it?
 

Souse your steak to ward off cancer

After spending all day leaning against an abandoned shed in the woods with just a rifle and a flashlight, my husband got his doe.

That means lots of deer burger, a few roasts and several steaks are now stuffed in our freezer to feed us cheap for a while.

I’m new to the taste of venison and really hate the way it smells when it’s browning, but my husband makes a delicious teriyaki marinade that covers the gamey taste of those deer steaks perfectly.

He leaves mine on the grill until it’s well-done. That’s how I like it. I think more rare meat has a stringy/gummy texture that is most undesirable.

I know my preference is among the minority, though.

My food microbiology professor boasted of eating his steaks near raw: As long as the steaks haven’t been pierced before cooking (which would allow any bacteria on the outside to get inside the meat), the cook only needs to sear the surface to be rid of most things that could make him sick.

Some people shy away from well-done steaks because meats cooked to high temperatures form heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAs). These HAs are thought to contribute to some types of cancer.

There is hope for the devout well-done crowd, though. Food chemists in Portugal have found that the formation of HAs is significantly reduced when beef steaks are marinated in red wine or beer for six hours before being pan-fried.

I wonder how it does with venison?
 

When worlds collide: engineering and food safety

After breakfast in the morning, my husband and I go our separate ways until dinner. Bret, who studied agricultural engineering in college, designs turf equipment. That’s him at right on an old prototype mower managing the turf in our backyard.

As you all know, I studied food science and industry. With the help of Doug and Phebus, I found my way to writing about food safety.

Our worlds collided this morning when I pulled his engineering magazine out of the pile of mail in the kitchen and saw the words “food safety” staring back at me.

The cover article was by another ag engineer, Nathan Anderson, who works with the FDA’s National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Illinois.

In the article, Anderson points out that,

“Increased concern over microbiological safety in terms of public health and international trade has led to a shift in how microbial risks are assessed and controlled.”

In order to have fewer sick people and more world trade, governments are adopting new risk-based approaches to food safety management and ditching the old prescriptive control measures.

Anderson’s article describes the Food Safety Objective (FSO) approach to risk management, which sets as a goal a maximum population for a certain microbe in the food being processed.

Processors must then control the levels of the microbe on/in incoming product initially, reduce levels if necessary, and prevent any increases.

This, of course, can be expressed by a mathematical equation (since it’s an engineering concept). But I won’t do that here.

Developing processes based upon known risks—as opposed to long-standing beliefs—is a smart way to do business. Engineers just say it differently than food safety writers.

Engineer: 

burger + E. coli + food thermometer > burger + E. coli + color-based estimate

Food safety writer:

Is Diet Coke Plus really a plus?

It’s no secret.  The obesity epidemic is still raging in the United States.  Documentaries such as Super Size Me and TV shows like Big Medicine have helped to bring the public’s attention to the obesity problem in the US, but there is still a long way to go to encourage consumers to adopt proper eating habits and exercise regiments.

There have been quite a few fad diets out there that guarantee the latest “quick fix” for a spare tire around the waist or love handles.  The health food market has also exploded with new products offering few calories and added vitamins and minerals.  Consumers are also looking for products not only to help them lose weight, but also stay healthy by consuming products, like functional foods, to help prevent cancer.  Functional foods, any fresh or processed food claiming to have a health-promoting and/or disease-preventing property beyond the basic nutritional function of supplying nutrients, are also being researched and developed by many scientists.

Functional foods are fast becoming a part of everyday life.  Two-thirds of adults made an effort to buy more fortified foods in 2006 – up 17% over 2005. One-third of young adults age 18–24 regularly drink energy beverages, and more than half of mothers of preteens bought organic foods last year.

With the majority (69%) of Americans pursuing a preventive lifestyle and 27% taking a treatment approach, not surprisingly, products that offer specific health benefits that make it easier for consumers to address their individual needs are enjoying explosive sales growth.

How does the market classify whether or not a food is considered functional food? The FDA regulates food products according to their intended use and the nature of claims made on the package. Five types of health-related statements or claims are allowed on food and dietary supplement labels:
http://www.ific.org/nutrition/functional/index.cfm
    * Nutrient content claims indicate the presence of a specific nutrient at a certain level.
    * Structure and function claims describe the effect of dietary components on the normal structure or function of the body.
    * Dietary guidance claims describe the health benefits of broad categories of foods.
    * Qualified health claims convey a developing relationship between components in the diet and risk of disease, as reviewed by the FDA and supported by the weight of credible scientific evidence available.
    * Health claims confirm a relationship between components in the diet and risk of disease or health condition, as approved by FDA and supported by significant scientific agreement.

Could junk food be advertised with health claims?  Diet Coke Plus was introduced in 2007 by The Coca-Cola Company as an alternative to Coca-Cola Classic.  The ingredient list includes the following added vitamins and minerals: magnesium sulfate (declared at 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for magnesium in the Nutrition Facts panel), zinc gluconate (declared at 10% of the DV for zinc), niacinamide (declared at 15% of the DV for niacin), pyridoxine hydrochloride (declared at 15% of the DV for vitamin B6), and cyanocobalamine (declared at 15% of the DV for vitamin B12).

Diet Coke Plus has just come under fire for using the word “plus” in their product name.  According to the FDA, Diet Coke Plus is “misbranded … because the product makes a nutrient content claim but does not meet the criteria to make the claim.” Muhtar Kent, the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Coca-Cola Company received a warning letter from the FDA last week detailing regulations for using the word “plus” and Diet Coke Plus’ abuse of the word, along with the statement that the “FDA does not consider it appropriate to fortify snack foods such as carbonated beverages.”

I’ll be honest; I’ve bought Diet Coke Plus at the grocery store.  I might’ve been trying to rationalize my caffeine addiction.  It said Plus, it must be ok to drink.  If they ever come out with an Organic Coke I’m sure people will be clamoring to buy it, supposing that it will be “all natural”.

The FDA has allowed Coke 15 days to prepare a letter detailing the actions that Coke plans to take in response to the warning letter, including an explanation of each step being taken to correct the current violations and prevent similar violations.  “We take seriously the issues raised by the FDA in its letter,” Coke spokesman Scott Williamson said in a prepared statement.  “This does not involve any health or safety issues, and we believe the label on Diet Coke Plus complies with FDA’s policies and regulations. We will provide a detailed response to the FDA in early January."

A Hoser in North Carolina

I’m a total food safety nerd. I even use big food safety events to remember when things in my life happen.  Had I not emailed Doug in the winter of 2000 looking for an on-campus summer job at Guelph, I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing that.

The story would be a lot cooler if I had sought out Powell as a potential employer because I was interested in the stuff he did, but I didn’t. I had no idea what he did — and being a bit of an idiot, I didn’t bother to look it up. I emailed Doug on the advice of a friend, and former Powell Lab-ite, Lindsay Core. Lindsay knew I was desperately looking for a job, and didn’t tell me much else about the dude or what he filled his days with. Lindsay just said "I think you two will get along".  I didn’t really know what that meant, but really had no other prospects.  So I emailed him. And he hired me to pull news.

Pulling news meant that I surfed through the tubes of the interweb for anything food risk-y (food safety, GE crops, animal disease, etc) and the stories I found (along with the other news pullers) become the content for FSnet and the other listserv postings Doug puts together every day.  Doug’s philosophy fit in with what I was looking for — he never really cared where I was as long as I could be found with an email and that I would get something to him when he needed it.

About three weeks in, I fell in love with the content and became hooked on food safety communication. That’s when an E.coli O157 outbreak linked to Walkerton Ontario’s town water system hit. I was already interested in disease (maybe it was because of Outbreak or the Hot Zone?), but the coverage and discussion within the Powell lab around Walkerton (how the outbreak was handled and communicated to the folks drinking the water) drew me in. I knew it was time to move from molecular biology and genetics to food safety. So finding what I really liked is linked in my mind to the 2000 Walkerton outbreak.

That’s where it all started.

I equate a May 2003 trip to Dani’s graduation from Dalhousie in Halifax with the news of the first Canadian BSE case. On the way home, I saw Doug on the in-flight CBC newscast talking about how CFIA has handled things (and thought, even when I’m away from Guelph for three days Powell and food safety follow me).

In 2006 I was about to leave for a trip to Kansas to visit Doug, and begin the initial evaluation of the food safety infosheets, when the E.coli O157:H7/spinach outbreak broke. When I arrived in Manhattan it was all E.coli O157 and spinach for us. The picture that Christian created with the skull and leafy greens (right) became a signature picture amongst the food safety infosheet pilot participants. Those pilots, and conversations with Doug and Amy in their living room, evolved into video observation of food safety practices — one of the things I’ve spent the past couple of years on.

I’ll always remember 2008 for a bunch of personal things (having a kid, getting hitched, getting a position at NC State and moving to North Carolina) — and will probably equate it to Maple Leaf Foods, Listeria monocytogenes and Michael McCain (who was just named Canadian Business Newsmaker of the Year — kind of like OJ being named US Sports Newsmaker of the Year?).

In my time spent in the various incarnations of FSN/iFSN/barfblog/Powell’s lab, I’ve seen Doug’s hair catch on fire; been accosted in a hot-tub (not by him) while in Phoenix with him; got lost on a trip with him in snowy, -20C Montreal without my coat; threw up in his backyard; talked about a ridiculous amount of pop culture with him; started a company with him and Katija; translated Kiwi accents for him; and, maybe most importantly, went to see Neil Young with him.

We’ve golfed, played squash and hockey together. Each of which he beat me at, and often reminds me of it. He also likes to point out, and I never argue with him, that I owe him. I do; although it’s a bit like owing something to Tony Soprano.

There’s lots of stuff I’ve left out of the post because it’s hard to write about 8 years in 750 or so words, but through all the fun stuff and late-night emails, Doug has shown me how to create a lifestyle around food safety where working and vacations blend together.

Doug’s got lots of friends, former friends and never-friends. The ratio is probably about 1:1:1. Some food safety folks have told me that they wish he was nicer. I’m glad he’s not. His skepticism and cynicism (and sometimes lack of tact) makes him great at what he does, and have made him the perfect mentor for me.

So enough of this post being about Doug, it’s really about me. On Monday I start a faculty position in the Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences at NC State University as food safety extension specialist.  I’m excited as I get to support extension agents throughout North Carolina; develop food safety programs to be delivered from farm-to-fork; and, conduct applied research on food safety. It doesn’t sound like a job to me. $550 for season tickets to the Hurricanes, and about three hours to Myrtle Beach are added bonuses.

Dani, Jack and I left Canada a week ago for the USA. Our furniture will arrive sometime next week, so for now we’re minimalists. We’re currently camping indoors, with only an air mattress, lawn chairs and a 42" television (I guess the TV isn’t really camping equipment, but whatever).

On Tuesday night we picked a whole chicken up at Target and decided we’d roast it, but forgot that in our equipment-less situation we didn’t have our trusty PDT 300 to take the temp. 

The juices were running clear.  The chicken was piping hot (even a bit crispy) but after I had my first couple of bites I noticed that the meat close to the center looked pretty raw.

We went and got an interim thermometer at Target yesterday.???

The Monday start date hinges on me not coming down with Campylobacter or Salmonella.

Doug sent me an email a couple of nights ago (while we were chatting about the fantastic Canada/US World Junior Hockey Tournament game) that said "you your own dude at NC State" (he’s one arm typing with Sorenne lately).  Yep. That’s true, but I wouldn’t be my own dude here if it wasn’t for him, and I’m excited to work on more great stuff together.